PHILADELPHIA'S soda tax has been the subject of cheers and jeers from Democratic presidential candidates, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a slew of pundits on both sides of the issue. If only Philadelphia's deep poverty crisis and the near-destruction of our public schools at the hands of former Gov. Corbett had garnered this much attention.
Our city finds itself at a crossroads between new prosperity and the abject poverty that plagues one out of four of our neighbors. The soda tax is the right move to ensure that all Philadelphians can have access to the early education and services that are vital to escaping the death grip of poverty.
Our kids deserve pre-kindergarten, community schools, and good recreation centers. And our city needs the 10,000 green jobs retrofitting buildings that the soda tax will create. In a city where taxpayers are rightfully leery of where their money goes, it is clear exactly where the soda-tax money will be spent. With thousands of schoolchildren falling behind early on and rec centers that haven't been updated since President Nixon was in office, the merits of these programs are indisputable.
Mayor Kenney is keeping his campaign promise to invest in education and our city's infrastructure. He is doing what's right, even if it's unpopular with some very powerful corporate interests.
The soda industry is spending millions to oppose the measure, even resorting to mischaracterizing it as a "grocery tax." It is difficult to escape their misleading ads. The American Beverage Association has poured $1.5 million into opposing the soda tax in the last month alone. Imagine if that money actually went toward helping educate kids instead of securing even more profits for big soda.
The soda industry has presented us with a false choice. It wants us to believe we must choose between education funding or jobs for the hardworking men and women who deliver the soft drinks and the small businesses who sell them. The soda industry is doing its best to pit workers against workers, and most shamefully, against schoolchildren. The truth is, there is absolutely no reason the soda industry has to pass this tax along to consumers. The tax is levied on distributors of sugary drinks, which are two steps removed from consumers.
Critics of the soda tax say it is a tax on the poor. Poverty and lack of education are the real tax on the poor. I am unmoved by the soda industry's newfound concern over the poor. For years, billion-dollar soda companies have profited from targeted advertising in poor, minority communities. Meanwhile, many of their business practices have disserved those very communities. Tax revenue lost just from Coca-Cola, which keeps most of its cash in offshore accounts, could go a long way toward funding schools.
This begs the question, why not tax big corporations appropriately in the first place? That's an excellent idea. When Republican-led Harrisburg and Washington begin to function in a way that protects working families over big corporations and adequately funds essential services, Philadelphia should repeal as many local taxes as possible.
In the meantime, we are in a desperate situation, with Philadelphia schools only beginning to recover after being starved by Governor Corbett. There simply is no room in the schools budget for these initiatives. The School District has already made deep sacrifices to stay afloat. Blue-collar school district workers - members of 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union - have given nearly $100 million in concessions to keep Philly schools open. It's time that the soda industry pays its fair share and helps the very communities where they earn their highest profits.
The soda tax is an obvious solution, but it certainly won't be an easy one, as Council is inundated with Big Soda lobbying efforts. But Philadelphia has faced much tougher economic choices in the past: choices that laid off teachers, browned out fire stations and closed libraries, and allowed the state to nearly run our school district into the ground. By comparison, taxing soda distributers and the largest corporations in America is downright refreshing.
Vice president, Pennsylvania director of 32BJ SEIU.
I like Coca-Cola, so I didn't blink when I paid $2 for a 20-ounce bottle one Saturday on Market Street. If Mayor Kenney has his way, on July 1 this same drink would cost $2.60. He's wagering that there are enough soda and sugary-drink addicts who live in or visit the city to pay for his $26 million pre-kindergarten program.
Nobody ever lost money betting that Philadelphia would screw up a tax increase. Give the mayor an "A" for intention and an "F" for execution, and earmark this one as a future lesson for Pre-K students. The sugary- drink tax, which also applies to sports and fruit drinks with added sugar, is the latest fiasco in mayoral budgeting myopia and recalls the pre-Revolution discord of the Tea Act, Stamp Act, and yes, (the first) Sugar Act.
There is a lot of fat to trim in the mayor's operating budget for Fiscal Year 2017, in lieu of enacting a sugar tax.
Let's start with the $9.677 million budget for the City Commissioners Office, which oversees the city's electoral process. Elections are already a shady affair in Philadelphia, with near-guaranteed victories for Democratic candidates. Plus, the chairman shows up for work less frequently than Punxsutawney Phil. The independent Committee of Seventy already serves as an election watchdog, making the City Commissioners Office redundant.
All it took were years of scandalous deals and a flurry of indictments to shut down Traffic Court. I propose a similar fate for the Register of Wills Office, with an annual cost savings of $3.672 million. Like Patronage, er, Traffic Court, this office could be folded into the courts system for the simple reason that if a judge is marrying two individuals, the court can handle the paperwork.
Advances and payments to labor organization for negotiations are estimated to cost $10 million for FY17. It seems these same organizations already have the city over a barrel with their "concessions," so let's cut this by 80 percent, resulting in a savings of $8 million. After all, it's for the kids.
Moving along, the mayor has implemented the office Chief Administrative Officer - with a budget of $4.629 million. The city survived over 333 years without this office. Why start one now?
Just by scratching the surface of City Council's perks, the removal of the stipend for fleet cars results in an estimated savings of approximately $300,000 per year. These officials only show up at SEPTA stations on Election Day to curry votes; why not get on board to spend some quality time with their constituents?
The savings above total $26.3 million and provide a surplus - a term as yet unknown by the city's fiscal planners - over the cost of the pre-K program. And I haven't even factored the true beasts of bloat - the DROP program, pensions and real-estate tax abatement and assessment. I'm sure a few million can be gained from an audit of these budget anvils.
Now, we're rolling the dice, assuming that either the School District of Philadelphia or a private contractor can effectively manage the new pre-K program, but perhaps the mayor can move beyond using a sugar tax to finance it.
Paul F. Bradley